USA Justice First Look

Supreme Court to hear case on border shooting of Mexican national

As its first case under the new Trump administration, the US Supreme Court is scheduled to hear a case involving the shooting of a 15-year-old Mexican by a US border guard.

The Supreme Court on Tuesday is hearing an appeal to a case involving a 2010 shooting of a Mexican boy by a U.S. Border Patrol Agent.
J. Scott Applewhite/AP | Caption

The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear a case Tuesday surrounding the fatal shooting of an unarmed 15-year-old Mexican boy by a US border patrol agent in 2010, determining what constitutional protections foreigners can receive outside of the United States.

Sergio Hernandez’s family has sued the border official who shot their son, arguing that the teen’s constitutional rights were violated in the incident. Cell phone video of the incident shows that the agent fired his weapon from the US side of the border as the boy hid behind a pillar on the Mexican side.

The case comes at a time when immigration policies have made many question where the rights of non-citizens lie in relation to the Constitution. President Trump’s halted immigration order has brought a similar debate to the courts as federal judges try to determine whether the measure, which temporarily bars immigrants from seven predominantly Muslim countries and refugees from entering the US, violates the Constitution.  

“The court couldn’t have known when it took this case how events in the world were going to play out, but it is eerily relevant to what’s happening with the Muslim-ban litigation,” Deepak Gupta, the attorney representing the Hernandez family, recently told Slate. 

The case is the first the Supreme Court will hear during Mr. Trump’s presidency. The administration argues that the courts should not examine how it treats foreigners outside of the US, and that doing so could entangle the courts with foreign policy and diplomacy.  

Lower courts have dismissed the suit, but the Supreme Court has agreed to hear it. The justices will consider whether or not those who are injured or killed outside the US can have their day in American courts.

Some have argued that ruling in favor of the agent would set a precedent of ambiguity surrounding the border and how US officials and authorities conduct themselves there.

"If left standing, the Fifth Circuit's decision will create a unique no-man's land – a law-free zone in which US agents can kill innocent civilians with impunity," Robert Hilliard, a lawyer for Hernandez, argued in court papers, according to CNN. "This court should make clear that our border is not an on/off switch for the Constitution's most fundamental protections."

The agent, Jesus Mesa Jr., did not face charges stemming from the shooting. The Obama administration also denied requests on the part of Mexico to extradite Mr. Mesa to face criminal charges there.

The case is not the only of its kind. Another Mexican teen, 16-year-old Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez, was also shot and killed by a US border agent while in Mexico. That shooter, Agent Lonnie Swartz, is facing second degree murder charges related to the incident, and the teen’s family has filed a civil rights suit that awaits the Supreme Court decision on Hernandez.

Some hope that a ruling in favor of Hernandez’s family will help to set new standards for accountability among border agents and put debates surrounding their responsibilities in the region to rest.

“What we’re asking for here in this case is a pretty modest holding,” Ms. Gupta said. “We’re asking for the court to hold that law-enforcement conduct that occurred entirely on US soil – so it’s domestic conduct, entirely – should be subject to judicial review under circumstances where, if the victim were a US citizen, everyone would agree that there would be an egregious constitutional violation.”

This report contains material from the Associated Press.